Monday, 9 March 2015

Who protects our ‘thought’ Industry?


3 decades ago, Ghari Baqir returned with a PhD from Harvard. Keen to use his newfound skills to contribute to policy and thought he started teaching at university as it allowed him time to research, write books and perhaps at some stage advise the government. He had ideas and was willing to work hard.

Soon he realized that professors were at the bottom of the barrel. In a society where power and wealth is everything, he had neither. His counterparts in the bureaucracy had nuisance value, generous perks and plots whereas all he had was a measly salary, no power, no perks. His tiny filthy office did not even have a phone in that era before cellphones.

Luckily, donors offered paid consulting opportunities. Eventually he made enough money to buy his own house. In the process sadly dreams of independent research, those bright ideas, those books he wanted to write got buried. Donor consulting was working on others’ agenda. He wrote long, lengthy and often meaningless reports on poorly thought out projects. He reported to junior donor officials as well as their contractors who controlled money with little originality. The terms were very clear: Ghari could only dance to their tune.   

Worse, he was also discriminated against. Paid at ‘domestic’ rates, usually half (or less) that of international consultants who often were much less qualified than him.

He often says “discriminated against in my own country but who do I turn to? So hungry is the MOF and EAD for donor money, that they never question donor practices, quality or agendas. EAD has no care for exploited domestic ‘thought industry’ or donor controlling policy agendas, only their EAD foreign tours and perks.”

But the game had to be played. He often thinks of writing his book to tell about this iniquitous situation.

10 years later, his growing business led him to make a consulting firm in Islamabad where he would be close to his paymasters. The firm has grown. He is now very close to 2 of the biggest donors as well as has strong relationships with 2 of the biggest beltway bandits being their steady subcontractor in Pakistan. Yes money is coming in.

However, he knows that he has peaked and that the firm can grow no more. Donors will never allow him to compete with their own consulting firms--his senior partners. He knows them well and he knows he can do a better job. But fine print in the rules prevents him from competing. So relegated to be being a junior partner, he is often merely a logistics supplier. In other words, a bag carrier.

So ACME Consulting of Washington DC got a 100 million USD contract out of which his firm got only 3 million. Ghari’s firm did most of the work. But ACME consultants came there at huge rates lived in 5 star hotels and gave instructions.

He thought about expanding overseas but he could not compete with the ACMEs who had huge support from the ‘cartel’ of donors. So when last we met he told me that there would never be a Pakistani consulting firm of international stature given this structure of the international thought industry. 

Well we have protected cars exorbitantly for 50 years, I told him. In order to make an engineering goods industry, we have the Engineering Development Board which with SROS mothers a stunted Engineering Industry.  

In addition we have the National Tariff Commission (NTC) to guard all industry in Pakistan from dumping practices. There website shows ongoing investigations into Polythene, Soda Ash and garments for allegations of dumping. They have successfully investigated many such allegations in the past.

We also have the Competition Commission in Pakistan (CCP) to look into anticompetitive practices and it has taken stands in sugar and cement industries.

Why don’t you appeal to the NTC and the CCP?

Ghari is a serious, well-meaning sort of fellow. He marched off to all these agencies to plead his case. He had a hard time explaining what an ‘intellectual industry’ was. They see and need cars but not thought.

Ghari had come full circle—starting out as a professor in a society where education and research had no value to becoming a sort of ‘thought’ entrepreneur in an environment where intellectual work has no respect and is routinely subject to dumping by donors.

Even his original ideas do not belong to him. Consultants and donor agencies get the citation. The sit at the policy table. Ghari is merely the ghost in the machine.

And Ghari concludes with a sigh “History and country experience has abundantly illustrated that development is direct product of better ideas arising from thought and research. Yet in Pakistan, EAD and MOF unintendedly facilitate dumping on our ‘thought’ industry. Do they really understand development or are they ‘marching to the tune of defunct economists’?”